Astronomy & the Arts

The delights of observing the night sky long have inspired artists, composers, and poets. Occasionally, people even share a career between astronomy and the humanities: The musician and composer William Herschel became one of the most important astronomers of the 18th century. The rock guitarist Brian May—who was earning a PhD in astronomy when his rock band, Queen, began making hit records—is one of several contemporary musician-stargazers. Another is the musician Michael Koppelman, who is seen in the film imaging a gamma-ray burst 11 billion light years from Earth and who (among other gigs) once played bass for Prince.

Samuel Palmer, whose painting of the great comet of 1858 appears in the film, was a close friend of the poet and painter William Blake. He is just one of many artists and poets whose work has interpreted and popularized the discoveries of astronomy.

These resources can help you explore the connection between astronomy and the arts.

Visual Art and Astronomy

Web Resources:

  • Exploding star
    Exploding star by Don Davis (from Seeing In the Dark)
    Don Davis, who did the film's special effects, is one of the world's leading astronomical artists and a veteran stargazer.
  • Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was the first modern "space artist." He sought to paint realistic scenes, especially of the planets, based on the best scientific information available at the time; his aim was to stimulate viewers to imagine what one would see from other places. Here you can find a biography, a bibliography, and many stirring examples of his paintings.
  • The International Association of Astronomical Artists is an organization of artists who depict (mostly realistic) art work related to astronomy and space. See their newsletter, Pulsar, on this site, for interesting discussions among artists.
  • On the brief Art of the Night Sky site you can find an introduction to some of the astronomical paintings of Vincent van Gogh—which, although subjective, are often quite accurate as to the positions of the stars and planets.
  • Lynette Cook is an artist who is frequently asked by astronomers and astronomy organization to picture astronomical objects that cannot yet be photographed, such as planets orbiting other stars.
  • Remedios Varo was a 20th century Spanish/Mexican surrealists who incorporated many scientific ideas into her paintings.
  • William Hartmann, a noted planetary astronomer, is also a skilled painter of extraterrestrial scenes.

Some other space artists whose work has accurate astronomy include:

Print Resources:

  • Fazekas, A. "Visions of Space: Astronomical Art" in Astronomy, July 2004, p. 78. An overview and sampler.
  • Hardy, D. Visions of Space: Artists' Journey Through the Cosmos. 1989, Limpsfield. Featuring 60+ artists.
  • Hartmann, William, et al. In the Stream of Stars: The Soviet/American Space Art Book. 1991, Workman. Over 200 color paintings and text by artists in both countries.
  • Kaplan, J. Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo. 1988, Abbeville Press. On the work of the Latin American painter who used many ideas from science.
  • Levy, D. "A Marriage of Science and Art: Profile: William Hartmann" in Sky & Telescope, June 2001, p. 78.
  • Miller, Ron The Dream Machines. 1993, Krieger. Illustrated history of the spaceship in art and science.
  • Miller, R. "Chesley Bonestell's Astronomical Visions" in Scientific American, May 1994, p. 76.
  • Olson, D. & Doescher, R. "Van Gogh, Two Planets, and the Moon" in Sky & Telescope, Oct. 1988, p. 408.
  • Olson, D., et al. "Identifying the "Star" in a Long-lost Van Gogh" in Sky & Telescope, Apr. 2001, p. 34.
  • Olson, D., et al. "Dating Van Gogh's Moonrise" in Sky & Telescope, July 2003, p. 54.
  • Olson, D., et al. "When the Sky Ran Red: The Story behind The Scream" in Sky & Telescope, Feb. 2004, p. 29. On Munch's painting and atmospheric phenomena.
  • Olson, R.& Pasachoff, J. Fire in the Sky: Comets and Meteors, the Decisive Centuries, in British Art and Science (1998, Cambridge University Press).
  • Sherrill, T. "Envisioning the End of the World" in Sky & Telescope, June 2006, p. 36. On Chesley Bonestell's paintings of cosmic disasters.
  • Welther, B. "Leonardo da Vinci and the Moon" in Sky & Telescope, Oct. 1999, p. 40.

Music and Astronomy

Web Resources:

  • Voyager Diagram
    Current location of the Voyager space probes. The shaded regions mark the outer boundaries of the solar system, where "solar wind"—particles emitted by the Sun—come to a halt when they encounter interstellar gas. Mapping the distance of these zones is a task remaining for the Voyager space probes, both of which are still sending data back to Earth.
    The Voyager Gold Record was produced by Timothy Ferris and launched in 1977 aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft—which are now nearly 10 billion and 8 billion miles from Earth respectively, making them the most remote human artifacts ever made. The two records, which are identical, contain digitally encoded photographs, natural sounds, human greetings, and 26 pieces of music, ranging from Beethoven and Bach to Senegalese percussion, Australian Aboriginal songs, a Navajo night chant, an ancient Chinese ch'in composition, and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." See also the Wikipedia entry.
  • Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher composed the original music in the film Seeing in the Dark. They have been working together since their days in the band Dire Straits.
  • Surface of Titan
    The surface of Titan as photographed by the Huygens probe in January 2005. The "rocks" we see are water boulders, hard as rock at the cold temperatures on this distant moon.
    The Music to Titan site contains four pieces of music carried aboard the Huygens lander, which touched down on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005.
  • The influential electronic composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson was named a NASA Artist in Residence in 2002.
  • An unusual project called Winds of Mars combined wind measurements from the Mars Pathfinder probe with the music of Bach.
  • Jane Ira Bloom is a jazz saxophone player and composer who has written a number of pieces about space and astronomy. She was the first musician named to NASA's Art Program.
  • The Science Songwriters' Association Resource Guide offers CDs and web sites from self-published songwriters specializing in science-related songs.
  • Professor Walter F. Smith of Haverford College keeps a web site of recorded and unrecorded songs related to physics and astronomy.
  • A list of astronomically inspired pieces of music can be found in an article in Astronomy Education Review by Andrew Fraknoi

Print Resources

  • Goldman, S. "Sounds of Space" in Sky & Telescope, Jan. 2004, p. 66. Connections between astronomy, amateur astronomy, and music.
  • Ronan, C. "Astronomy and Music" in Sky & Telescope, Sep 1975, p. 145.
  • Ronan, C. "William Herschel and His Music" in Sky & Telescope, Mar 1981, p. 195.
  • Sagan, Carl, Drake, Frank, Druyan, Ann, Ferris, Timothy, Lomberg, Jon and Sagan, Linda Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. 1978, Random House. A book explaining the thinking that went into the record carried by the Voyager spacecraft.

Poetry and Astronomy

Web Resources

Anthologies of Astronomy Poetry

  • Brown, Kurt, ed. Verse and Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics. 1998, Milkweed Editions. Includes a nice variety of 20th century poems inspired by astronomical research.
  • Crawford, Robert, Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science. 2006, Oxford University Press. A collaborative effort involving scientists and poets.
  • Digby, Joan & Brier, Bob, eds. Permutations: Readings in Science and Literature. 1985, Morrow/Quill. Juxtaposes excerpts from scientific writings with poems and other literature inspired by them.
  • Gordon, Bonnie, ed. Songs from Unsung Worlds. 1985, Birkhauser and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A collection of poems about science, with several about astronomy.
  • Levy, David Starry Night: Astronomers and Poets Read the Night Sky. 2001, Prometheus Press. Appealing book by a comet hunter and astronomy popularizer, who was an English major, with both poems and astronomical background.
  • Vas Dias, Robert Inside Outer Space: New Poems of the Space Age. 1970, Anchor/Doubleday. Inspired by the Apollo landings on the Moon. Focuses on poems of space exploration but includes astronomy too.

Print Resources

  • Black, T. "Oliver Wendell Holmes: Poet of the Sky" in Sky & Telescope, June 1999, p. 52.
  • Byard, M. "Poetic Response to the Copernican Revolution" in Scientific American, June 1977, p. 121.
  • Carter, T. "Geoffrey Chaucer: Amateur Astronomer?" in Sky & Telescope, Mar. 1982, p. 246.
  • Maynard, C. "Robert Frost: Poet of the Night" in Sky & Telescope, June 1992, p. 692.
  • Olson, D. & M. "William Blake and August's Fiery Meteors" in Sky & Telescope, Aug. 1989, p. 192.
  • Weitzenhoffer, K. "Well Versed in Astronomy" in Sky & Telescope, Oct. 1990, p. 365. Brief introduction to astronomy in poetry over the centuries.

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